Theory, Model, Method

Basic notions

Students studying linguistics (the science of languages) for the first time often have misconceptions about what linguistic theories deal with and what they can offer them. Some students may regard linguists as professional authorities on what is correct and what is incorrect in a given language. But linguistics is the science of language; it treats language and the ways people use it as a set of phenomena to be studied in much the same way as a geologist treats the earth, a neurologist the brain of humans and other beings, or a psychologist the human mind. Thus, linguists want to figure out how language works and prior to this, they are concerned with the question What is human language. They are no more in the business of making normative value judgments about people's language and its use than geologists, neurologists, psychologists are in the business of making value judgments about the behaviour of the earth, the brain, or mind.

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The comparison with other sciences as given here indicates that modern linguistics is a cognitive science treating language
as a psychological phenomenon, thus displaying nearness to natural sciences.

Examining the sounds of a language (Phonetics and Phonology) or the evolution of mankind and languages also shows the similarity of linguistics with natural sciences so that some linguists classify language as a physical phenomenon.

But language is also a cultural and societal phenomenon and shows some similarity to humanities and social sciences. People all have deep-seated culturally and socially motivated ideas about what language is and how speakers of a language are expected to use it. We will see that some areas and levels of linguistic analysis adhere more to the psychological-cognitive perspective (with special methods, techniques and principles of description), some others will show more similarity to the social and cultural perspective.

So, knowing where to begin in studying language scientifically is not a trivial matter at all. Rather, particular issues arise - which would not arise if we were geologists figuring out how to study earthquakes or the structure of the earth's crust. Nevertheless, linguistics as a science also reveals generally accepted principles of theory construction (See Data and Theories).

For this reason, before we start diving into the study of language, we will need to examine some of the common (mostly pre-scientific and intuitive) biases that we all have concerning language and to look at the differences between intuitive everyday (pre)conceptions of what a language is (See What is human language) and the theoretical and systematic approach typical of a real science. This will include the various meanings of the term ''grammar' (See What is grammar - The meanings of the notion of grammar) found in everyday use and in linguistic science.

As a science, any systematic approach to language is based on the collection and processing of data from (and about) the language under examination. Therefore, crucial questions concern the sources and types of linguistic data, the ways of collecting and dealing with data (See Method) including some fundamental procedures for how linguists are going to proceed in constructing their theories that may account for the data and that are subject to generally accepted Scientific standards (for example objectivity, data conformity, lack of logical contradiction). As there are several different and often competitive ways of approaching a language, students are to learn and accept this situation of competing scientific theories.

Thus, because there is more than one way to begin, it will also be useful to establish a rather basic stance to guide students of linguistics.

Why study Linguistics
What is human language
What is grammar - The meanings of the notion of grammar
Concepts of language
Language and its varieties
Language systems and their internal organisation

Exercises on Basic Notions